The Tampa Bay Buccaneers open their 2017 preseason slate on Friday night in Cincinnati, and Head Coach Dirk Koetter has said on multiple occasions that every healthy player on the 91-man roster will get into the game. That includes the starters, but they'll give way to reserves relatively quickly.
"We're going to play the starters about a quarter," said Koetter on Wednesday, after the team's last full-scale practice before the opener. "Pretty typical – a quarter the first week, a half the second week, into the third quarter the third week – that's pretty typical for most teams."
Indeed it is, and that makes the first August game a prime opportunity for those players battling for roster spots and significant jobs. Only in the final preseason tune-up, when starters spend the whole night on the sideline, offers more snaps to those men down the depth chart.
As such, here are five Buccaneers who are likely to command a good chunk of snaps in Cincinnati, all of whom will get an excellent chance to make a strong first impression.
The second-year defensive back has been working with the second team at cornerback, behind starters Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves. After first converting to safety as a rookie and then moving back to cornerback late last season, Smith is fully entrenched at his original position and is the favorite to win the primary reserve spot behind the two starters. Tampa Bay's coaching staff wants to get a long look at Smith at cornerback in live action – essentially the first time he's played that position in an NFL game.
"Ryan Smith has been solid," said Koetter. "He is a great example of a guy who [will play because] we know what Hargreaves and Grimes are going to do. Ryan Smith is going to get a lot of snaps. It will be fun to watch him."
That may be even more true after Grimes took a cleat to his shin in practice on Wednesday and came away with a "nasty-looking laceration," according to Koetter. That doesn't sound like a long-term issue, but given how fresh the injury is, the team may choose to hold the veteran out on Friday. If so, Smith may actually see time on the starting defense, which would be an even better chance to evaluate his readiness for a key role.
The Buccaneers have eight cornerbacks on the depth chart, plus two players listed at safety (Josh Robinson and Cody Riggs) who have played corner in the NFL. There are certainly enough players to soak up the 60-80 defensive snaps the team will play Friday. However, given the uncertainty about Grimes and the fact that Jude Adjei-Barimah was held out of practice on Wednesday, the numbers are actually a bit thinner. In addition, cornerbacks Javien Elliott and Robert McClain may see most of their action in the slot, as they are battling for the front-line nickel back job. All of it adds up to extended action on the outside for Ryan Smith.
Jameis Winston is the unquestioned starter at quarterback but the battle to be his primary backup is still a long way from being decided. The competitors are Ryan Griffin and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and they will likely divvy up most, if not all, of the snaps in the last three quarters on Friday night.
Given the gulf between the NFL experience of the two throwing Ryans, Griffin may have more to prove. He has seen previous preseason action, of course, but has yet to appear in a regular-season outing. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, is in his 13th pro season and has started 116 career games. Griffin's edge is in his time spent in the Koetter's system; he's been on the active roster for the past two seasons, which was an obvious attempt to prepare him as a potential #2 to Winston after the anticipated departure of Mike Glennon. That time has served him well, judging by his efforts in this year's camp.
"[He's] way better [than last year]," said Koetter of Griffin. "He's getting a lot more reps, number one. He knows he's not the number three. He knows he's fighting for a job. He's doing a good job."
Buccaneer coaches have strived to give Griffin and Fitzpatrick an even share of the snaps with the second-team offense, so it's unclear which one will be first into the game on Friday night. Most likely, the order will reserve in Week Two. In addition, Koetter has a goal of seeing the two QB competitors work with the first-team offense at some point in August.
"Griff is throwing the ball great, number one," said Koetter. "He's really throwing it smooth right now. In this first game, the 'ones' aren't going to play a ton and so we're going to give Fitz and Griff reps both with the 'twos' and 'threes.' But before it's all over, we would like to get those other guys a series with the 'ones,' with the first O-line. That would give them their best chance to show what they can do. But this game, Jameis [Winston] and the 'one' line are going to play the same amount."
Koetter has had nothing but praise for the rookie receiver out of Penn State, a third-round draft pick who has looked like a veteran on the practice field. Of course, he isn't the first young wideout to gather buzz at training camp, and that hasn't always led to an impact player in the regular season. Godwin, to his credit, has been far more consistent than some of his predecessors, but it's safe to say that the coaching staff would like to see him show up on game night as well.
Working in favor of an extended run for Godwin on Friday night is, ironically, the fact that his role in the offense is still quite undefined. The Buccaneers' offense is relatively set at the starting positions, with Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson on the outside and Adam Humphries in the slot, so it's not clear exactly the path that would get Godwin on the field in the fall. Most likely, he'll need to learn all the positions so that he can grab his share of snaps from all three of those receivers in front of him.
Another draft pick with a currently uncertain role but a huge amount of potential is Evans, the second-round safety out of Texas A&M. He is surely considered a long-term answer at one of the safety spots, but for this season he's in the middle of a four-way battle for those two jobs. During the first week of camp, he ran primarily with the 'twos,' alongside free agent acquisition J.J. Wilcox, as returning players Keith Tandy and Chris Conte got the first-team snaps. However, this week the coaching staff has started to mix and match those four players in different combinations so that Evans and Wilcox could work on their communication with the more experienced players in Mike Smith's defense.
Evans has had a relatively quiet camp, but Koetter said on Tuesday that he had started to notice the rookie showing up with some notable plays. The Bucs probably want to let the rookie get an extended chance to get that momentum going on Friday night. In addition, he has to learn both safety positions so that the team can ultimately put their two best players on the field. That's motivation to give Evans additional snaps, as well.
"We're starting to get on a 'pitch count' with some of our older players, so we wanted to give some guys some rest and we definitely need to get Justin going," said Smith. "Justin, most of the reps he's played is he's played at free safety, he hasn't had the 'splash' plays that everybody thinks they are going to have. But when you're a deep safety, you're hoping your deep safety is not having to make a bunch of plays. We're going to start moving him around and he's going to be cross-trained to play both the strong safety and the free safety. He's been doing a nice job. Unfortunately for both he and [J.J.] Wilcox, they did not have the opportunity to spend a whole lot of time with us in the offseason and our OTAs."
Barber, an undrafted rookie a year ago, was the Buccaneers' leading ballcarrier in the 2016 preseason by a wide margin. He had 39 of the team's 118 carries; only fellow undrafted rookie Russell Hansbrough, with 22 totes, even reached 20. At the end of it all, Barber beat the odds to make the opening-day roster.
Some of that preponderance of carries was due to the way teams approach the fourth game of the preseason. Koetter noted how the rotation will go in the first three games above; in the fourth game, expect all the starters to sit out. Last year, the team had no interest in exposing Doug Martin or Charles Sims in Game Four, and Jacquizz Rodgers wouldn't arrive until September. Barber got 16 of his 39 carries in that fourth contest.
Things are a little bit different this summer. Barber is still fighting for a roster spot, yes, but he's also got a chance to carve out a little bit larger of a role, particularly with Martin unavailable for the first three weeks of the season. On the flip side, he's got another prime competitor for snaps in fifth-round draft pick Jeremy McNichols. Now that all the roster cuts have been moved to after the fourth game, the Buccaneers will still have plenty of backfield depth for that final contest so they will be able to spread it around more among the likes of Hansbrough, Blake Sims and Quayvon Hicks, if they so desire. The early games might be the better opportunity to see how Barber and McNichols can fit into the September plan.
Barber should also get a few extra snaps in the kicking game, and those will be important snaps. Given the depth the Bucs have in the backfield, the deciding factor on both roster spots and an active role on game day could come down to which players offer more on special teams.
"Those guys are working hard in pass-pro, they're working hard catching the ball," said Koetter. "Except for Doug, all the other guys play on special teams, which they're going to have to do. When you get down to 46 on game day, those running backs, if you're not the starter, you've got to help out on [special] teams."